Friday prayers key to Iran’s succession politics
London - In past centuries, Shia Muslims gave less emphasis than Sunnis to congregating on a Friday but after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution prayers were encouraged. Friday prayer leaders are set for a central role in the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who turns 78 this year.
Between 2007 and 2016, 52 of the 97 clerics who sat in the Assembly of Experts, the elected body that chooses a new leader, were or had been Friday prayer leaders, states research by Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of politics at Syracuse University in New York.
The percentage is probably higher since the 2016 assembly election, Boroujerdi said in an interview. This strengthens Khamenei’s influence on what comes after him.
“In 1993, as supreme leader, Khamenei reconstituted Showra-ye Siyasatgozari-ye A’emmeh-e Jom’eh, (the Friday Prayer Policymaking Council), keeping only three of the original members, expanding the size from seven to nine and moving it from (the holy city) of Qom to Tehran to be closer to him,” Boroujerdi explained.
“The [Friday Prayer Policymaking Council] is in charge of the appointment, dismissal and evaluation of all Friday prayer leaders. Khamenei himself appoints the prayer leaders of the capital cities of Iran’s 31 provinces.”
The leader also has a representative in each province and if an ally runs for the Experts Assembly, this “encourages local notables to drop out”, Boroujerdi said. “So the percentage of people representing him in the assembly has been consistently going up.”
Boroujerdi said he sees Khamenei after 28 years as supreme leader as a “micro-manager with an intricate knowledge” of Iranian politics. “Khamenei had big shoes to fill replacing Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989,” he said. “He overcame being a junior cleric by becoming an institution builder.”
Lacking Khomeini’s religious pre-eminence, Khamenei utilised personal networks in extending the size, reach and economic clout of the leader’s office.
“He had many positions from the revolution’s early days: as deputy Defence minister and then as wartime president (during the 1980-88 Iraq conflict), he became familiar with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps),” Boroujerdi observed.
“He rewards loyalty and many close lieutenants know him from Mashhad [the eastern city where Khamenei grew up] before the revolution.”
At 77, Khamenei “is worried about his position in history, about his legacy”, said Boroujerdi. “If my argument is correct and Khamenei is a micro-manager, then he’s not going to leave things to chance.”
Boroujerdi said there is scant possibility a senior ayatollah will become the next leader through his religious credentials. The changed composition of the Experts Assembly leaves “nobody of stature like Grand Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Golpaygani”, who lost to Khamenei in the 1989 vote.
“If you look at the political heavyweight ayatollahs in Qom now, you see no one capable of gaining a decisive vote. In terms of age, (Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi) Mesbah-Yazdi is 82, (Ayatollah Naser) Makarem Shirazi is 91 and perhaps most importantly (Ayatollah Hossein) Vahid Khorasani, who has more disciples than anyone else in Qom, is 96.”
Khamenei wants a successor sharing his mindset, said Boroujerdi, who puts the probable field at three: Ebrahim Raisi, former judiciary chief appointed by Khamenei in 2016 to head the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad; Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief Khamenei appointed in 2009; and Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.
“Raisi has emerged lately as a dark horse. It doesn’t hurt that he’s from Mashhad and is son-in-law of Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, a big shot in that part of the country. He’s 56, so age wouldn’t be a factor.
“Sadegh Larijani, also 56, comes from a prominent family. He has judicial experience and the intellectual clerical horsepower to make a legitimate case.
“Finally, there’s Hashemi Shahroudi, who’s 69. In terms of religious credentials, he’s rumoured to have tutored Khamenei on theology and jurisprudence but he’s viewed as more Iraqi than Iranian (he was born in Najaf) and has faced accusations of corruption. I’d put him a distant third.”
Boroujerdi said he suspects Khamenei has decided who he will support and is convinced he will in any case reveal his view, through either a “will and testament” or messages to lieutenants.
Any subsequent vote would be decisive, Boroujerdi concluded: “With no heavyweight left in the Assembly of Experts whom the opposition could point to as a legitimate contender, we may end up with a vote between two candidates where it’s clear who’s going to be victorious.”
This would loosely replicate the 2016 election of a chairman for the assembly, which saw a comfortable majority for Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer leader. Boroujerdi deduced there is no real chance of President Hassan Rohani becoming leader.
Empirical research underpins his analysis, Boroujerdi stressed. Since leaving for the United States in 1978, he has compiled mountains of data.
Syracuse University Press this year is to publish Boroujerdi’s 800- page Post-Revolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook, including comprehensive election results, 2,300 biographies, analysis of officials’ backgrounds, lists of parties and groups and an outline of connections within and between ten leading families.
For anyone with more than a passing interest in Iran, the book will be compulsive reading.